The Second Annual ‘We Don’t Deserve You’ Awards

gore-sfBrant Ward/San Francisco Chronicle

It’s that time of the year again! The 49ers are missing the playoffs for the first time in three years, making this a somewhat sombre edition of the WDDYAs. Thinking back over the season, it’s hard not to let the dark cloud of Jim Harbaugh’s departure distort my view. However, there were plenty of bright spots in 2014, even if you have to squint to see them. Here are the brightest:

Offensive WDDYA:

Frank Gore

2014 Stats: 255 Att.*, 1106 Yds.*, 4.3 Y/A, 4 TD, 11 Rec on 19 Tgt., 111 Yds., 1 TD

(*=Leads Team)

I remember when they announced that Gore had finally broken 10,000 rushing yards. I couldn’t believe it. Behind this offensive line? In this offensive scheme? There was no way. Gore was the greatest tragedy of the 2014 season. Rather than leading the offense to another playoff run, he became a misused instrument, repeatedly battered behind the line of scrimmage and held back from his role as the 49ers’ tone-setter. In a year when all of the team’s greatest assets vaporized, Gore faced the reality of the 2012 run being the closest he would ever get to a title, and the possibility of leaving the team he had given everything to. His response was one of the most remarkable I’ve ever seen. Despite being eliminated from the playoffs, he delivered two of the most electrifying performances of his career: a 158 yard game against the San Diego Chargers, followed by an incredible 144 yard performance against the playoff-bound Arizona Cardinals. It was Frank as he had always been, patient, relentless and incredibly productive. We don’t deserve you, Frank.

Honorable Mentions:

Carlos Hyde

Very few backs could split duties with a player as talented as Gore and still stand out. The most remarkable thing about Hyde was how well he seemed to fit into the 49ers’ identity. He wasn’t perfect, but he responded to the rigors of NFL football with scads of physicality and some beautiful downhill running. I will be very excited to watch his career unfold.

Anquan Boldin

Even in an offense as dysfunctional as the 49ers’, Boldin got the job done. He put together his second consecutive 1000+ yard season, and the seventh of his career, bullying defensive backs several years his junior.

Defensive WDDYA:

Philadelphia Eagles v San Francisco 49ersEzra Shaw/Getty Images

Antoine Bethea

2014 Stats: 71 Tckls., 14 Asst., 4 Int., 1 Sk., 10 Pass D., 1 FF

Donte Whitner’s replacement was everything Whitner promised, with plenty more. His ability to hit as hard as Whitner was not in question after week one, and he was a huge part of one of the NFL’s best pass defenses. There were defensive players with gaudier numbers, or who had a more tangible presence, but nobody was as much of a surprise as Bethea. He seemed to come into his own in Vic Fangio’s system, making highlight reel plays despite being a typically low-key player. His history with the Colts was successful, if unremarkable (Super Bowl win aside), and many were concerned he would struggle to produce in San Francisco. His consistency was something the 49ers relied upon, particularly against high-flying offenses like the Eagles and Saints. I am looking forward to another year of Bethea leading the secondary. Congratulations, Antoine, we don’t deserve you.

Honorable Mentions:

Chris Borland

Had he played for a full season, Borland would be taking home the WDDYA trophy, as well as defensive rookie of the year. Borland’s brief stint as a human cyclone was something to behold. To think that a rookie could so ably step into the massive hole left by Patrick Willis was absurd to begin with. The fact that it was an undersized 3rd round draft pick with ‘t-rex arms’ only added to Borland’s epic story.

Aaron Lynch

Another rookie who nimbly stepped in to fill a major hole, Lynch had an incredible year. He didn’t put up incredible numbers, but has been recognized as one of the best rookie linebackers to play in 2014. He was asked to replace the skills of Ahmad Brooks, who spent much of 2014 having hissy fits on the sideline, and took full advantage of the opportunity. Lynch is one of many reasons to be very excited about the future of the 49ers’ defense.

Grading the 49ers’ 2014 Draft Class

hi-res-77284dc72587ecc87074d786e0232486_crop_northThearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

About eight months ago, before the 49ers were a red and gold travesty, before Greg Roman became the leading cause of global warming, before Jim Harbaugh and Jed York began their six-month winner-take-all cage match, before Aldon Smith was exiled to Elba for committing crimes around the same time as Ray Rice, the 49ers were sitting on 11 draft picks. They had plenty of needs, to be sure, but Trent Baalke saw to basically all of them in just three days.

Baalke has played an interesting role amidst the recent turmoil in the 49ers organization. If recent reports are to be believed, the front office sees Harbaugh as eminently expendable, which essentially coronates Baalke as the future architect of the 49ers. Baalke is tremendously valuable; his draft strategy has not only brought a wealth of talented athletes, it has kept the team flush with future picks. I personally don’t think having a great General Manager is in and of itself enough to keep the 49ers relevant, but it’s better than nothing.

All that said, the 2014 draft will probably go down as the best in Baalke’s career. Despite the deluge of injuries, the 49ers were able to stay above .500 for most of the season, thanks largely due to the depth Baalke shoveled onto the roster over the last few seasons. The failure of the 2012 draft notwithstanding, Baalke has proven himself adept at finding bargain talent, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.

Of the 12 players picked up in the draft, seven saw playing time, while five were shunted into starting roles. Here is how they performed:

Round 1:

Jimmie Ward- Defensive Back, Northern Illinois, 8 games started, 19 tackles, 1 assist, 2 passes defended

Ward was something of an unknown when the 49ers drafted him, and he remains one going into next season. His most notable games were the low points, when some rookie mistakes and blown coverages saw him give up multiple touchdowns to Brandon Marshall and John Brown. Ward is an unusual case, as he was drafted to play the safety position once Antoine Bethea’s contract expires, but he was also a first round pick, and thus had to contend with a galaxy of high expectations. I’m not comfortable calling him a bust, but I didn’t see anything incredible from Ward. Given that he’s an undersized rookie playing out of position, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but I’m still not sure he was worth a first round pick.

Grade: 60/100 (I am grading these because this is a list on the Internet.)

Round 2:

Carlos Hyde- Running Back, Ohio State, 14 games started, 4 touchdowns, 333 yards on 83 attempts (4.0 Y/A), 68 yards receiving on 16 targets

My second favorite pick of the 2014 haul, Hyde showed lots and lots of good things, while his shortcomings seemed more due to inexperience than a lack of talent. He has power and a little burst, and has been really, really fun to watch. Considering how inconsistent the run blocking was this season, Hyde’s solid Y/A and willingness to lower his shoulder and level defensive backs is encouraging. Oh, and he can cut a little bit.

Grade: B+ (You’re only here to see the grades, right? Are you even reading my blurbs?)

Round 3:

Marcus Martin- Interior Offensive Lineman, USC

Thanks to his injury during the preseason, Martin was able to bide his time behind Daniel Kilgore before being forced in as the starting center. It’s hard to honestly identify exactly how well he has done. He hasn’t really done anything of note, which may be a good thing. It’s also difficult to discern just how well any individual lineman performed given the constant o-line shuffling.

Grade: 4/7 (Grades are no less subjective than the stuff I’m writing… I guess you’re saving time if you aren’t reading, though. Good for you, I guess!)

Chris Borland- Linebacker, Wisconsin, 11 games started, 84 tackles, 23 assist, 1 sack, 1 fumble recovery, 5 passes defended, 2 interceptions

Borland is easily the most interesting rookie of the class. I was skeptical of his ability to play in the NFL when he was drafted. He was one of those players that analysts felt did not deserve any kind of deep or descriptive analysis: they would say things like “He’s just a FOOT. BALL. PLAYER.”, “He has a nose for the ball”, “He plays with tremendous instinct” and so on.

I have never been happier about being wrong. Borland has been a revelation; he leads the teams in tackles and assists, and played his heart out in every single game. He does not have the sideline-to-sideline speed of Navorro Bowman or Patrick Willis, but his skill at run stopping and diagnosing plays will only get better with more experience. The future is bright!

Grade: +33.3 (Are you even paying attention to the grades? Write them on your hand so you can yell them at your family over Christmas dinner)

Also drafted: Clemson Offensive lineman Brandon Thomas (did not play)

Round 4:

Bruce Ellington- Wide Receiver/Running Back, University of South Carolina, 12 games started, 62 yards receiving on 12 targets, two touchdowns, 28 yards rushing on six attempts, 4.7 yards per attempt, one touchdown

188 yards on 23 punt returns, 8.2 yards per return, 614 yards on 24 kickoff returns, 25.6 yards per return

Say it with me: SMALL SAMPLE SIZE. I’m a Bruce Ellington fan, but he hasn’t really been tested yet. All that said, his athleticism and versatility were a huge part of the offense at South Carolina, and he has experience working with a mobile quarterback. His ability to return the ball for more than -10 yards is also amazing, but that’s more because I’m willing to take any kind of gain after years of Kyle Williams and LaMichael James. I don’t think Greg Roman has the aptitude to fully utilize a player like Ellington—here’s hoping the next offensive coordinator does.

Grade: Pretty Good (I had some friends in high school who didn’t get grades. They just got lyrical poems written on papyrus about their performance. It was very San Francisco).

Dontae Johnson- Defensive Back, North Carolina State, 2 games started, 21 tackles, 7 assists, 5 passes defended, 1 interception (pick-six)

Of all the rookies, Johnson got the rawest deal. He had the length, measureables and skill to be a great cornerback, but he needed time to bulk up and adjust to the demands of the NFL. However, losing Chris Cook, Tramaine Brock, Chris Culliver and other corners for extended periods accelerated his professional debut. He played reasonably well, but still looks like a developmental prospect. He was easily manipulated by veteran quarterbacks, and even struggled against fellow rookie Derek Carr. He should improve going forward, but there isn’t much worth mentioning, other than his garbage time pick-six, of course.

Grade: 3/5 Faux hawksScreen Shot 2014-12-24 at 12.55.37 PM

 

Round 5:

Aaron Lynch: Linebacker, University of South Florida, 3 games started, 15 tackles, 6 assists, 5 sacks, 4 passes defended

My favorite pick of the 2014 draft, Lynch stepped in to help out the 49ers’ reeling pass-rush unit and never looked back. He might not have the run-stopping skills to be an all-around great linebacker, but his size, speed and ferocity were a factor in every single game. His college tape, particularly from his freshman year, showcases just how talented he could be. With both Ahmad Brooks and Corey Lemonier having down seasons, Lynch made his case for a starting position. He is only a strong training camp away from getting it.

Grade: 100% (Hope you memorized these grades. They will be incredibly important next season).

Also drafted: Florida Atlantic University Defensive Back Keith Reaser (did not play)

Why the 49ers Are Missing the Playoffs

hi-res-015d79ac08d4b0ac08f6e329ffd4dfbb_crop_north 2Ben Margot/AP

The 49ers ended a three-season playoff streak on Sunday, falling to the Seattle Seahawks for the second time this year. They sit at 7-7, and have very little to play for other than self-respect. The ever-eager local media has pounced on the 49ers and the fans have followed suit, calling for some kind of retribution against a team that has fallen far short of preseason expectations.

Watching the anger and the subsequent blamefest unfold has been equal parts fascinating and depressing. As with any subject debated in the public forum, most fans’ conclusions were hopelessly reductive, excoriating Colin Kaepernick, Jim Harbaugh, Greg Roman or the bad karma brought on by the much-maligned move to Santa Clara. As with any subject worth discussing, the ‘reason’ that 49ers fans are looking for is far more complicated than any single player or coach; blame should be spread in varying layers across all parts of the 49ers franchise.

However, the most under-discussed factor is, in my opinion, the most obvious reason the 49ers failed to return to the playoffs, or even come close. Last season, I wrote a short piece summing up what I thought was holding the 2013 49ers from dominating: injuries. By the 13th week of the 2013 season, the 49ers had ruled individual players out of games a collective 68 times, an average of 5.6 per game, hampering their ability to produce on offense. This year is even more dramatic.

I put together an edited 2014 roster, eliminating injured players that were never meant to play this season (Brandon Thomas, Marcus Lattimore) and other players buried in the depth chart (Kaleb Ramsey, Keith Reaser). I also omitted Aldon Smith from the list, given the circumstances of his absence. Of this pared-down roster of 43 ‘impact players’, the 49ers have missed a collective total of 135 games, an average of 9.6 players per game. The offense had 58 absences, while the defense struggled with 77. Of those 135 games, Pro Bowlers missed 27. Only 18 players on my roster have gone the whole season without missing a game. Some of those 18, like Chris Borland, Carlos Hyde and possibly Frank Gore, could miss Sunday’s game against the Chargers.

There isn’t any explanation for this, there isn’t any blame to go around. The very simple reality is that this team was missing many, many pieces. They lost team stalwarts like Patrick Willis, and quality backups like Michael Wilhoite and Derek Carrier. They lost players from every corner of the roster, and still managed to stay in the playoff hunt through 13 games. The fact that a team this battered still has a shot at a winning season is, quite frankly, remarkable, and stands in my mind as the best argument for giving Harbaugh another chance in San Francisco.

People spent a lot the 2014 season (and every other season, if we’re being honest) deriding Roman for his predictable and mostly ineffective game plans, but it is crucial that we examine his choices, along with everything else, with these injuries mind. It is easy for me to say that he isn’t dialing up enough run plays, but in so doing I am willfully ignoring the tremendous turnover on the offensive line and at the tight end position. Vance McDonald has failed to impress as a passer but has become one of the better blocking tight ends in the league. He missed 7 games. Losing any player, even a role-player like McDonald, limits what the coach can do.

There are also the lingering injuries, the ones that the 49ers were forced to play through. It’s no secret that Vernon Davis has been a major disappointment this season, but very little consideration is given to how injuries to his ankle and back have limited him. It is so easy to blame his ego, his work ethic or his preseason holdout, but the most obvious reason has been present almost all season. His lack of speed and execution might be the number one reason the 49ers’ passing game struggled so mightily, and his injuries are the only tangible reason I see for his rapid decline.

The poor health of the team is not an excuse as much as a deflating reality. The 49ers could have been coached better. Kaepernick could have worked on his patience and accuracy. Special teams could have un-trainwrecked itself. Roman STILL could have called more run plays. But none of that is really as compelling to me as the numbers listed above. To ask why the 49ers are missing the playoffs and fail to consider the effect injuries have had is simply foolish.

Seahawks At 49ers: More of the Same

dt.common.streams.StreamServerAP Photo/Tony Avelar

The 49ers lost a game in an incredibly predictable fashion on Thursday, falling apart offensively and wasting yet another good defensive day. The ‘rivalry’, the state of the NFC and the lack of any signs of life from the offense made this loss feel like a big one, but it was yet another game thrown away by a 49ers team that refuses to try anything new against the Seahawks.

The Good Thing

Defense

Once again, the defense did a great job of keeping this game winnable. Despite three 49ers turnovers, they managed to get stops and pressure Russell Wilson. The Seahawks offense, itself pedestrian, did manage to take advantage of the 49ers’ linebacker’s notable lack of speed. Other than that, it was a solid day for the defense.

The Bad Things

Gameplan

Greg Roman, the favored target of frustrated 49ers fans (and Trent Baalke’s daughter) once again failed to draw up a comprehensible game plan. For the ninth time since 2011, Frank Gore was given the ball less than ten times (their record in those games is 2-7). For the fifth time since Colin Kaepernick took over as starter, Roman decided to try a pass-heavy attack against what remains the best secondary in the NFL (the pass totals for games against Seattle: 36, 28, 29, 29, 24, record: 1-4). This was a Seahawks team lacking some of its best run-stoppers in Red Bryant and Brandon Mebane. Obviously an all-out rushing attack wasn’t going to work, but a little balance would have taken pressure off of Kaep and given the 49ers’ receivers more chances to get open. I don’t know that firing Roman will fix the 49ers, but I have no faith in him to concoct even a marginally successful gameplan against Seattle. He just doesn’t seem to get it.

Turnovers

For the reasons cited above, the 49ers exposed themselves to turnovers in this game, and paid the price. They were able to survive against Washington despite three turnovers, but had no such luck against an offense with a competent quarterback. Hopefully the turnovers in the last few games are not a trend. The 49ers will not survive in Seattle if they continue to cough up the ball.

The Other Thing

Colin Kaepernick

I realize he should be in the ‘bad’ column, but hear me out. Kaep had his second truly bad game of the season. The other, against Chicago, was an ugly late-game collapse. In both games, he was put in a position where his only choice was to throw. You could make the argument that this was correct call, as the 49ers were losing, but it was a two score game until the 4th quarter. Since 2012, the 49ers have averaged 31 rushing attempts per game. They only had 18 on Thursday.

Colin Kaepernick is not BradyPeytonBreesLuckRodgers. For three years, he has made things happen on offense with the help of a great run game. He might get better as a passer, or he might not, but that is no reason to test him out against one of the best defenses in the NFL with the season potentially on the line. This is a transitional year for the 49ers’ run game; their o-line has been all over the place and neither Gore nor Carlos Hyde have been able to keep the run game consistent. This is why I am not taking the talk about Kaep’s regression seriously. He is the most sacked quarterback in the NFL suddenly lacking a run game that has been excellent for most of his young career. Despite this, the 49ers still have a winning record.

49ers vs. Seahawks: What I’ll Be Watching For

Anquan-Boldin-49ers-Richard-Sherman-Seahawks49ers.com

The 49ers take on the arch-rival Seattle Seahawks tomorrow, hoping to exact some revenge for last year’s NFC Championship game. Both teams are very different from the two that faced off up in Seattle in January; injuries have devastated both rosters, forcing them to adapt and rely on unknowns to win games. The rivalry talk has died down somewhat, but with a playoff berth likely on the line, look for both teams to play their hearts out tomorrow. Here is what I will be watching for:

Pass Rush

After losing Golden Tate to free agency and Percy Harvin to… something, Seattle has morphed into a bizarre, run-first offense, relying on Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson’s scrambles to get first downs. They look more like the Braxton Miller-Carlos Hyde Ohio State Buckeyes than the Seahawks the 49ers played last year. Getting to Russell Wilson and keeping him contained has worked really well for the 49ers in the past, and it will be on the pass rush to do so tomorrow. Despite averaging 6.1 yds/rushing attempt in his career, against the 49ers Wilson has managed only 74 total yards on 25 attempts, good for 2.96 yds/attempt. Given that Seattle’s offense relies so much on his legs, whether or not the 49ers keep him contained could very well decide the contest tomorrow.

Run Defense

The 49ers’ run defense needs to be on point tomorrow. Newbies like Aaron Lynch and Chris Borland will have a long day ahead of them; despite being banged up, Seattle’s offensive line is great at run blocking, ranked 5th in the league by Football Outsiders. The 49ers’ run defense has suffered since losing Ian Williams and Glenn Dorsey, and they would do well to load up the box against Seattle.

Penalties

The players are well aware of the rivalry and what is at stake tomorrow, adding a layer of emotion that will no doubt have an impact on the field. Just like their last contest in San Francisco, the 49ers need to stay cool and not make stupid mistakes.

Turnovers

Since taking over as the starting quarterback, Colin Kaepernick has played Seattle four times, throwing just two touchdowns and seven interceptions. Kaep does not need to be great or even good tomorrow for the 49ers to win, but he needs to avoid turnovers. Seattle is no longer the turnover king of the league, but they are still very good, with 15 takeaways in 11 contests. Kaep has done a good job limiting turnovers this season, and he must continue to play smart tomorrow.

49ers vs. Washington: What I’ll Be Watching For

imrsRicky Carioti/The Washington Post

The 49ers take on Washington tomorrow, hoping to extend their win streak to three and show a little something at home. They are facing a beleaguered, banged-up team that has had a lot of turnover at the quarterback position. It’s an excellent chance to have a statement win, but the 49ers have struggled to score on just about everybody this season. Here is what I will be watching for:

Offensive Line

Washington is far from a complete team, but they do have some quality pieces. Their pass rush has been solid for a lot of the season, and was a big reason they were able to steal a win from the Cowboys on Monday Night Football. The 49ers’ o-line has been improving, due in large part to the emergence of Marcus Martin as an anchor at center, but they still aren’t close to their 2012 dominance. If they are able to keep Washington’s pass-rushers at bay, Colin Kaepernick can take advantage of their horrible secondary.

Pass Rush

The 49ers’ pass rush has helped them stay afloat in the wildcard race, and it needs to take it to Washington’s o-line. Making Robert Griffin III uncomfortable will keep Washington from putting together any kind of momentum. I also just want to see Aldon Smith and Aaron Lynch go to work; it has been insanely fun to watch Lynch mature as a player, and having Smith back only makes him more dangerous.

Dominance

Last year, the 49ers went to Washington and dominated in every aspect of the game. They held Washington to just 190 total yards, sacked RGIII six times and looked, for all intents and purposes, like a playoff team. The 49ers have failed to truly dominate in a single game this season, and it’s starting to worry me. Kaep will be in a good position to bounce back from a poor game against the Giants, while Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde should get plenty of chances to make plays against the NFL’s 29th ranked rush defense.

Chiefs at 49ers: Homecoming

alexcolinScott Strazzante/SF Chronicle

The 49ers moved above .500 on Sunday with a narrow win over the Kansas City Chiefs. The big story was the return of Alex Smith, who looked sharp after leading the Chiefs in a 41-14 thumping of New England on Monday Night Football. The 49ers looked solid, if not great, and were the happy beneficiaries of some critical errors by Kansas City. It was a welcome win, and one that will hopefully quiet the pervasive Jim Harbaugh-locker-room-team-discord-sky-is-falling rumors. Here is what I saw:

The Good Things

Run Game

The 49ers obliterated Kansas City’s defensive front, running for 171 yards on 40 attempts for 4.3 YPC. Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde both looked good, but it was the offensive line’s run blocking that really amazed me. Even without Anthony Davis, the 49ers’ o-line was able to open up huge holes and dominate for most of the game. There isn’t much else to say; this is how the 49ers are built, and how they need to play if they want to win games.

Penalties

The 49ers averaged 11.5 penalties per game going into this contest, but were only flagged twice for a net loss of ten yards. The deluge of penalties that was drowning the 49ers at the beginning of the season was probably aberrant, but it was worsened by a series of stupid mistakes on both sides of the ball. Hopefully the lack of flags on Sunday is a sign that the team is getting it together.

The Bad Things

Red Zone Offense

The 49ers reached Kansas City’s red zone four times, but only scored one touchdown. This has been a problem in San Francisco since 2011, and I’m still not sure what to make of it. It would be easy to blame Greg Roman and the play calling, but there was bad execution from the whole offense inside the 20 yard line. On the 49ers’ 5th drive, for instance, 2 of Kansas City’s three sacks came in the red zone, both following a 1st down false start on Mike Iupati. This implosion caused the drive to stall and robbed the 49ers of a chance at scoring the go-ahead touchdown.

Pass Blocking

The pass blocking was horrible on Sunday, and has been for the last few weeks. This weakness has been glossed over somewhat because of the o-line’s success on the ground, but it is starting to become a huge problem. The Harbaugh-era 49ers have never boasted an good pass-blocking line, but it has always functioned well enough. Football Outsiders has them ranked 28th in pass protection this year, down from 22 in 2013. Part of the blame rests on injuries, and the still-absent Davis, but even veterans Alex Boone and Mike Iupati have been struggling. As long as the team is winning, this is easy to ignore, but not giving Colin Kaepernick the chance to throw from the pocket will hurt the 49ers in the end.

The Other Thing

Defense

The defense was solid, surrendering just 265 total yards to the Chiefs and generally holding their own in the trenches. They limited Jamaal Charles and Knile Davis, who had days before gashed New England for 207 rushing yards, to just 90 yards on the ground. There were some major miscues, the most memorable of which was Antoine Bethea’s whiffed tackle on DeAnthony Thomas which resulted in a touchdown, but overall it was a decent, if not memorable effort.

Colin Kaepernick

I’m still not sure what to make of Kaep. He has shown incredible flashes, most notably in Dallas, but has also looked fairly pedestrian. He wasn’t impressive against Kansas City, but managed to control the ball and make a couple of incredible throws. I am curious to what extent his inconsistency is the result of the offensive line, which has already surrendered 13 sacks (tied with the Chiefs for 4th most in the NFL). Kaep has made a lot of his best plays while evading pass rushers, which is what leads to pundits dubbing him a ‘mobile quarterback’, but he hasn’t had great protection for most of the season, or indeed his career. This is somewhat alarming, as it limits what the 49ers can do offensively. I know Kaep can make reads and pick apart defenses, but it’s clear that the way the offensive line is playing, he won’t get many opportunities to do so.

49ers at Cardinals: What Did You Expect?

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Rob Schumacher/AZCentral Sports

The 49ers blew another one on Sunday, losing to a seemingly inferior Cardinals team led by backup quarterback Drew Stanton. The 49ers made similar mistakes to last week, much like they did in weeks two and three of last season, unloading a full clip into their own foot en route to an embarrassing loss. It was a wholly unentertaining game; I actually turned it off towards the end of the fourth quarter when it became clear that the refs were determined to continually break up the flow of the game. Here is what I saw:

But first! A little something to keep in mind. Lost in the moaning and groaning, the complaints about the officiating, the calls for Greg Roman’s head on a pike is a very obvious and significant truth. The 49ers are missing a ton of talent. Navorro Bowman is out. Aldon Smith is gone until later in the season. Vernon Davis and Vance McDonald both missed Sunday’s game. Anthony Davis, for four years an anchor at right tackle and a key cog in the 49ers’ ground game, is still out. Even newer players like Tramaine Brock are missed. No matter what anyone says about Colin Kaepernick, Roman, Jim Harbaugh, the struggles in the second half or anything else, the undeniable fact is that this 49ers team is banged up, in many ways worse than they were last year. Just keep that in mind.

The Good Things

Colin Kaepernick

Kaep was SHARP on Sunday, completing over 70% of his passes and leading the offense in two strikingly effective drives. What stuck out the most to me was how composed he looked leading what was effectively a brand new offensive scheme . He made mistakes, to be sure, and has been criticized for his yards-per-attempt (8.8), but the short range of his passes was more the result of the game plan and a noticeable lack of speed thanks to Vernon Davis’ absence. It was great to see him bounce back and use all the weapons available to him, including Derek Carrier. This is also one of the more annoying parts of the game; the 49ers wasted a really solid effort from Kaep.

Stevie Johnson

Newbie receiver Stevie Johnson was one of Kaep’s favorite targets on Sunday, particularly on third down. He showed off some of his ‘wiggle’, picking up plenty of yards after catch, and was a huge part of the 49ers’ offensive successes. His chemistry with Kaep will be something to watch going forward.

The Bad Things

Penalties

More on that here.

Pass Rush

Discounting an unofficial sack from Justin Smith and a little pressure from Dan Skuta, Drew Stanton enjoyed an immaculate pocket on Sunday. This is becoming a crisis; the 49ers road is getting a lot tougher in the next couple of weeks, and their secondary isn’t currently capable of holding off the likes of Nick Foles and Peyton Manning without a little help. Unfortunately, there isn’t a clear answer here. Aldon Smith can’t come back, and, other than Tank Carradine, the 49ers have exhausted their options to get some new blood into the pass rush rotation. Other than dialing up more blitzes, which had some moderate success in the first half against the Cardinals, the cavalry is a long way away.

Run Game

What can I say? Discounting a few designed runs for Kaep, the 49ers ran the ball a grand total of nine times on Sunday. Other than a nifty six yard touchdown run from Carlos Hyde, most of the runs were unremarkable– the back was either stuffed behind the line of scrimmage or good for a few quick yards. This is eerily similar to last season, but it makes a little bit more sense. Unlike last year, the 49ers have a lethal set of receivers, and the 00 personnel formations they rolled out on Sunday were pretty damn effective. Also unlike last year, the offensive line is in shambles, with stalwarts like Alex Boone and Mike Iupati failing to get the push that was so central to the run game. However, none of this stops Roman from at least trying to be a little more creative in the run game. It seemed like every give to Gore was an incredibly obvious run formation, and, more often than not, the Cardinals sniffed it out and prevented the 49ers from picking up significant yardage. I don’t understand why it needs to be so black and white with Roman– part of the benefit of having such a threatening complement of receivers is that it can open things up on the ground. I don’t know if this is Roman playing the long game, and he’s planning to move seamlessly into a more balanced offense soon, or he is just utterly unaware of the running back talent on the roster. Whatever the case may be, it needs to change.

Secondary

It’s hard to talk about this secondary, which is full rookies, has-beens and hopefuls, without talking about the pass rush. Jimmie Ward has been ‘exposed’, but throwing a rookie out there against some of the best in the game is rarely a great idea. We’ve seen some good things from Perrish Cox, Dontae Johnson and Antoine Bethea, but they haven’t been able to make up for the lack of pressure on the quarterback. I suppose this group has actually met our expectations, as no one was expecting much of them to open the season. I can only hope that Brock’s return solidifies things a bit.

The Other Thing

Second Half Struggles

The worst thing about the 49ers’ struggles in the second half is that we have to go through another week of idiotic theorizing about why the team seems to fall on its face in the 3rd quarter and never get up. There isn’t a reason for this. There is nothing inherent about the second half that is baffling the 49ers. This is the worst kind of aberration, the kind that fits so neatly into a talking point but that lacks any substance. A combination of factors, most of them outlined above, have contributed to the 49ers scoring almost nothing in the second half.

49ers vs. Cardinals: What I’ll Be Watching For

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The 49ers will play the Cardinals tomorrow, their first NFC West matchup of the season. Much like last week, this feels like the 49ers’ game to lose. The Cardinals’ defense lost a lot of good players in the offseason, and they will be rolling out second string signal caller Drew Stanton. However, after the absurdity last Sunday, it feels wrong to take anything for granted. Generally speaking, I want the 49ers to get back to what they do well: playing fundamentally sound football, limiting big plays and running the damn ball. Here’s what I’ll be watching for:

Run Game: The Cardinals have held teams to 2.6 yards per rush this season, which is a pretty scary stat. The catch? Say it with me: small sample size. They’ve dominated on the ground, but only against the Giants and Chargers, two teams with offenses that don’t lean on the run game all that much. I foresee the 49ers having a tough time picking up rush yards, but that shouldn’t dissuade them from giving Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde plenty of carries. They need to commit and wear down the Cardinals’ banged-up front seven.

Pass Rush: This is will be THE thing to watch tomorrow. If the 49ers can get their pass rush firing and make Stanton uncomfortable, they can give their secondary chances to make big plays. Stanton has a 5-9 touchdown-interception ratio, and is not nearly as good as he looked last week against the New York Giant Tire Fire. However, that means nothing unless players like Justin Smith, Ahmad Brooks and Aaron Lynch can make an impact.

Calm Colin: Colin Kaepernick had a horrible 4th quarter against the Bears last week, and his mistakes have no doubt been stewing around in his head all week. I’ll be watching to see how he handles the Cardinals blitz-happy defense, and whether he can take what they give him. He struggled in back to back games last season, but it was against better teams than the Bears and Cardinals. I’m hoping and praying that he can keep the jumpiness to a minimum, and instead show the remarkable composure he had in week one.

Penalties: The 49ers have lost 198 total yards over the last two weeks to penalties, 103 on offense and 95 on defense. They actually did the same thing last year, giving up 206 total yards to penalties in their first two games. This trend needs to stop; penalties were one of the things that kept the Bears in the game last week, and the 49ers will not be able to make these many mistakes against the Broncos or Eagles.

49ers vs. Bears: What I’ll Be Watching For

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The 49ers play their first game at Levis Stadium tomorrow, looking to shut down the Chicago Bears. The Bears are… pretty similar to the Cowboys, with a potent, if inconsistent, offense, and an uncharacteristically bad defense. The 49ers will be playing a historical home opener in front of what promises to be a very loud and excited crowd; it’s their game to lose. Here is what I will be watching for:

Run Game- The Bears’ defense has been surprisingly bad over the last two seasons, struggling to keep pace with an offense that is certainly playoff-caliber. They retooled a bit in the offseason, signing Jared Allen and Lamar Houston to beef up the defensive line and drafting Virginia Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller. However, they gave up 193 yards on the ground to the Bills last week, meaning picking up rushing yards will be crucial for the 49ers. Frank Gore, Carlos Hyde and surprise running back Bruce Ellington will all be relatively fresh after last week, and the offensive line will be improved with one of its best run-blockers, Alex Boone, returning to the fold.

Run defense- On the other side of the ball, the 49ers will need to play much tougher against the run. Chicago’s Matt Forte is as talented and consistent as they come, and he showed no signs of slowing down last week, picking up 169 total yards against the Bills. I do think the 49ers’ front is capable of slowing him down, but they will need to generate much more push than they did last week. The Bears will be playing without center Roberto Garza and guard Matt Slauson, giving the 49ers something of an edge, but it will be on them to step up and control the run.

Pass rush- Bears quarterback Jay Cutler poses the same threat as Tony Romo: if you give him too many chances, he can carve your defense up. Like Romo, he is also prone to throwing picks, making the performance of the 49ers’ pass rush central to their success on Sunday. It will be on the 49ers to prove that their lack of success getting pressure last week was simply season-opening jitters, and not a deficiency of talent.

Read option- This could be a great game for Colin Kaepernick to pick up some yards with his feet. The Bears defense has struggled against the read-option before, making the threat that Kaep represents all the more valuable to the 49ers’ offensive game plan. If the 49ers are able to establish things on the ground, I could see Greg Roman throwing in some designed runs or read option to further complicate things for the Bears.